What potential does astronomy hold for students as a field of study? Naresh Dadhich, Director of the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, answers this and other questions on the fields of astronomy and astrophysics in an interview.
“Schools should concentrate on basic courses, but they should also invite scientists to inspire students to do science.”
The world of astronomy and astrophysics is opening up new educational horizons for the youngsters in the country. Exciting avenues await scientific talents who want to explore the secrets behind the celestial objects.
The Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune is spearheading the growth of astronomy and astrophysics education in the country. Its director, Naresh Dadhich, a physicist of international repute, who has done extensive research in classical and quantum gravity and relativistic astrophysics, spoke on a wide range of issues related to astronomy education and research in an exclusive interview to The Hindu- EducationPlus.
With the United Nations declaring 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), how do you plan to take the message of astronomy to the general public in the country?
During IYA, we have planned several programmes all through the year. Firstly, my colleague Prof. Ranjiv Misra is the single contact person for coordination of IYA activities nationally and internationally. We had launched IYA on January 10 when representatives of all the institutes as well as other organisations had come to chalk out a coordinated programme.
We had also invited some of our associates from the universities for the purpose. In addition to planning of the programmes, there were public lectures by Prof. Jayant Narlikar on “Why study astronomy” and Dr. Sreekumar of ISRO on Chandrayaan. IUCAA has very strong and active programmes for popularisation of astronomy and science in general through hands-on workshops, lectures, etc. IUCAA has established a number of science centres in the schools around the IUCAA Giravali Observatory, which is located at 80 km north of Pune. In addition, there are six IUCAA reference centres in the universities at Cochin, Raipur, Kolkata, Siliguri, Delhi and Udaipur. There are 80 IUCAA associates from universities and colleges from all over India who would all be involved in IYA programmes.
ISRO has proposed launch of a dedicated satellite for astronomical research next year. What is your take on the current status of astronomical research in the country?
ISRO’s initiative to put up a dedicated astronomy satellite, ASTROSAT, is indeed most commendable. It is perhaps the first of its kind fully devoted to astronomy research. It would have telescopes covering the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This is a very challenging experiment which would give a great boost to astronomy research in the country.
The great challenge is to create a trained student-power to take full advantage of this great opportunity and do exciting science. Indian astronomy is doing very well. Apart from the world-class observational facilities like GMRT and ASTROSAT, there are plans afoot for participation in international projects of next-generation very-large 30-metre-class optical telescope. IUCAA has already acquired a 6 per cent share in the 10-metre SALT (Southern African Large Telescope in South Africa) with other 13 international partners. In short, one can safely say that there is great opportunity for young students to do astronomy with the world-class observing facilities.
What can the Union and State governments do in promoting research and development in the field? Do you think that astronomy, as an academic course, has been relegated to a position of secondary importance in our country?
Government should encourage young students to take up astronomy studies through fellowships. The main job is of the practising astronomers to convey the excitement of doing science and astronomy to young students. Admittedly, astronomy is not a basic course like maths; in fact; it requires a good grounding in maths and physics. Schools should concentrate on basic courses but they should also invite scientists to inspire students to do science.
There should be greater interaction between scientists and school students. It should perhaps be possible to chalk out an organised interaction programme with the help of college and university teachers as well as institute scientists.
What is the scope of astronomy as a career option for the youngsters in the country? How has it evolved in our country in the recent years?
There are about a dozen research institutes which include IUCAA, IIA, ARIES, NCRA-TIFR, RRI, IISc, PRL, HRI, etc., where world-class astronomy research is being done. In addition, there are about 40 universities with astrophysics courses and research. And there are ISRO and DAE programmes that also recruit astronomers. A good student has good career opportunities in the country as well as outside. The National Knowledge Commission and premier institutes of science in the country like the Indian Institute of Science have recommended programmes to attract young talents to pure science.
How can we revive interest among the students in pure science subjects?
We have to bring to students the various exciting opportunities available in science research career. The most important thing we should convey to students is that this is the only career which gives one absolute freedom to do what she/he likes most. One is allowed to carry one’s hobby — doing research is, in fact, a hobby like playing cricket or music and not a profession. No other profession gives one such an opportunity. One is paid reasonably well to live comfortably; what more does one want? However, one has to be in the top 10 per cent bracket to get into this life of ideas and wonder. IUCAA is one of the highly reputed premier educational and research institution in the country.
What are your plans for stepping up research and academic programmes in astronomy and astrophysics in the coming years?
One of the main aims of IUCAA is to propagate and strengthen A&A research and teaching in the universities. This is a continuing, never-ending task for IUCAA. IYA is one such event which will help us showcase astronomy nationwide visibly and prominently.
We hope that this will generate some momentum which will help carry forward astronomy in the country.